Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Reading in the Brain. The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (2009) suggests that a developing brain needs to be exposed to 20,000 hours of spoken language in order to get ready to read!
Children who have hearing loss need three times the exposure to new words and concepts as compared to their typical hearing peers, simply because hearing loss reduces auditory access and overhearing (or incidental) learning capacity (Flexer, 2009).
So What Does That Mean?
This reduced auditory access means that most kids with a hearing loss begin school with some sort of literacy gap. That’s because language development is about more than simply having the ability to hear sounds, it’s about making the connection that these sounds have meaning, which is critical.
So, the more words your child hears and begins to attach meaning to, the stronger the foundation for learning as she moves through school.
Maryanne Wolf sums it up beautifully in her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.
Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified, and stored away in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them.
Or to put it another way, the number of words your child is surrounded with matter. In their 1995 landmark study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, discovered that the number of words a child is exposed to in the home made a difference in how they do in school. How much of a difference does it make? The results really speak for themselves:
The number of words a child hears before kindergarten:
45,000,000 words if the child comes from a professional/college educated family
26,000,000 words if the child comes from a working class family
13,000,000 words if the child comes from lower socio-economic class family.
That’s a 30 million word difference! While the Hart & Risley study was not focused on kids with hearing loss, Dr. Dana Suskind in her newly released book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, relates this word gap to kids with hearing loss and how they might be at even more risk simply because of delayed access to understanding the sounds in their world.
So What Works?
A child with hearing loss needs extra exposure to new words and concepts before they are able to identify and understand them when their teacher speaks. “Handing a vocabulary list to an itinerant teacher (or working through a set of flashcards at home as a parent) and having them introduce the word and definition won’t help the child be able to identify the word,” says Lois Heymann, director of the Shelley and Steven Einhorn Communication Center in New York City. “This way of doing therapy works for a language impaired child, but not a child who has hearing loss.”
Instead, Heymann suggests, a child who has hearing loss should approach vocabulary building using Erber’s (1982) four stages of auditory skill development. This approach allows for different access points for child to process auditory information. These four stages are:
- Detection (so child can hear the sounds)
- Discrimination (so child can discriminate between the sounds)
- Identification (so child can identify different sounds)
- Comprehension (child is taught the meaning of the sounds).
How Can I Help My Child?
Erber’s four stages are really just a fancy way of saying that learning new words is much more than simply handing your child word lists to memorize, and that kids with hearing loss do best when they are exposed to the sounds of the word first.
So, while they are plenty of vocabulary apps out there (along with flashcards and other “vocabulary boosting” materials) you don’t need to buy anything. The best thing about vocabulary building is that words are everywhere, so you don’t need to invest in any special materials.
But, you can’t be intimidated. If your vocabulary isn’t that strong, learn along with your child. It’s so important to keep words flowing in your home, not only in the early years, but throughout your child’s life. If you are looking for some more in depth ways to work on building words I highly suggest reading Dr. Suskind’s book (Thirty Million Words, mentioned above).
In the meantime, here are some ideas to get you started:
Just Talk. Research shows that children thrive when they are exposed to adults who provide running commentaries of the experiences that surround a child. Lucy Calkins, in her book Raising Lifelong Learners, suggests that running commentaries give children the opportunities to engage successfully with providing their own narratives or recounts of personal experiences. By helping your child build this foundation they learn both language and structure.
Don’t worry if your child isn’t talking at this point, he is busy watching, listening, and absorbing. Get in the habit of narrating the events and experiences that occur throughout your day. Talk through the steps of making dinner while your child sits playing in his highchair. If your child is older talk about what he can expect on your upcoming trip to visit family in Arizona. Or what he might want to do on the weekend. Share your stories on long car rides.
Have Lots of Conversations. Conversations are important to provide your child the space to develop thoughts, observations, and opinions; and as parents we don’t have nearly enough of them with our children. While it may seem that you do nothing but talk to your child during the day, most of it is focused on the “business talk” of being a parent and raising a child (“Please finish your dinner.” “Get your coat on.” “Stop bothering your sister.”)
Engaging in conversation is a two way process. Start by using open ended questions such as, “What do you think happens next?”, “Why do you think that happened?”, or “That’s really interesting, can you tell me more?” Give your child enough time to respond and really take the time to listen to her. Engaging in these deeper conversations expands your child’s use of language and helps her learn to solve problems and extend her thinking.
Mystery Word When you and your child are reading together stop and choose a word your child doesn’t understand and have him try to figure out the meaning from the words that are around it. Guessing what a word means from the clues around it is one of the best strategies to help discover the meaning of a new word. Your child will begin to develop the skills needed for understanding words when help is not available.
Build on What They Know. Listen to your child and see what she knows. When she says something you know she has the concept, so expand upon it. If she says “I am really mad at you!” Then you can give her another word to use, “Oh, I see you are furious with me.” If your child is older you can try opposites, except it’s best to name that it is an opposite – “Oh, let’s see so the opposite would be you are happy with me.” Using what they understand as a base to expand their knowledge will help develop vocabulary and build associations between words and concepts.
Play Their Way: Playing with your child helps keep parent-child interactions non-threatening and free of many of the day-to-day frustrations, it can also provide a stress free environment to introduce new language. Whether you are spending time turning a cardboard box into a castle, or are kicking the soccer ball around outside specific activities have specific vocabulary so don’t hesitate to find ways to help your child expand his knowledge.
Connecting Home and School: Stay connected with your child’s classroom teacher and therapists and find out what she is studying at school or in therapy sessions. Plan an activity or outing at home that can reinforce the vocabulary and concepts she has already learned. Make your child the expert and have her walk you through some of the parts of the study.
For example, if your child is doing a bird study at school have her teach you some of the vocabulary and what it means; take time to go on nature walks or to a local museum to learn more about bird habitats; view websites together where you can listen to bird calls and try to test yourselves on distinguishing between the different sounds.
Digging for Words. Do fun things with word retrieval – to help child access the words they already know more easily. Make it a part of your day. Play with things, “I see the light just turned yellow. Can you name three things that are also yellow?” Or “I am going to make pancakes for breakfast; can you name five other things that we like to eat for breakfast?”
All this talk begins to give your child the exposure to word knowledge (vocabulary) and world knowledge (exposure to many experiences) they need to be successful language learners.
Vocabulary needs to grow as your child grows. It is easier for your child to attach meaning to a word that he sees in print for the first time IF he has been exposed to that word before by having heard it or used in spoken language.
May the power of words be with you!
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